When Manute Bol walks into the Hofstra University Physical Fitness Center, he doesn't just dip his head, he bends it low. Otherwise, his face would smack flush against the wall above the doorway. Bol, who is 7 feet 6 1/4 and the most famous basketball center in Sudanese history, is taller than Andre the Giant. The Washington Bullets' No. 2 draft choice, Bol will tower more than seven inches above his tallest NBA teammate, Jeff Ruland. Bol has a sister closer to Ruland's height.
Bol comes into the gym wearing a blue and white Bullets cap, though that's not his first identifying feature. "Manu-u-u-u-te!" cries an opponent named Gene Waldron, from a balcony, just above eye level with Bol. A crowd already has formed at the door. "Manute, Manute . . . " In the brief and nonluminous history of the Long Island Knights, which sounds like a fictional team but is a charter member of the United States Basketball League, people have not been seen in such numbers. It's the Knights versus the Rhode Island Gulls, led by Manute Bol and minute Spud Webb. It's the Bol game.
What's on everyone's mind is: Can Bol play? And: Can he gain weight, or will he stay 190 pounds, leaving the Bullets only one Beef Brother and a half? Is he destined to be broken like a stick by Moses Malone? Does he jump? What kind of shot does he have? Can he run up and down the court a whole game? How does he fit into the Gulls' team bus?
Questions are understandable because there's nothing ordinary about Bol. A nomad, he tended a cattle herd in the Sudan and once killed a lion with a spear. As a basketball player, he's played only one full season, with the University of Bridgeport. He's supposed to be 21, but looks older and acts wiser. What worry is Moses Malone next to a lion?
Some preliminary answers gleaned from preliminary questions: Yes, Bol can play, but in an unusual way. He can gain weight, perhaps, but maybe not much. Malone won't necessarily knock him among the ticket-holders, but Bol shouldn't stand in one place too long. No, he doesn't jump. His shot is a slingshot. Yes, he can make it up and down the court just about the whole game, though sometimes not quickly. In the Gulls' bus, he uses two seats.
Everybody leans in, a minor league throng of 3,014, for the jump to start the game. It's Bol against the Knights' Kenny Orange, a 6-10 1/2 225-pounder from Oklahoma Christian. The ball is in the air, so is Orange. Bol merely rises up on his toes, maybe gets off the floor a couple of inches as Orange easily wins the tap. Shortly, Orange drives and scores on Bol. Orange rebounds. Orange takes a lead pass and jams. Bol walks with the ball. Sign up Orange.
But wait. Orange shoots and this long arm stretches out, way out, reaches up, way up. The arm is Bol's. He swats the ball so hard back at Orange that Orange tumbles to the floor. By the half, Bol would have 12 blocks. Eighteen for the game. Enough that his coach, Kevin Stacom, would stand in a hallway outside the Gulls' locker room afterward and shake his head repeatedly. "Twelve blocks in the first half. Crazy. Crazy."
In just one minute, 15 seconds -- a crazy 1:15 -- Bol would block five shots. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam!
Yet Bol is not Bill Russell reincarnated on a basketball court. Red Auerbach once called Russell "the last piece in the puzzle" after he led Boston to a world title as a rookie in 1956-57. Bol is more a puzzle. It isn't exactly that he dances to his own drummer; it's that he seems to hear his own symphony.
First, the Manute Bol warmup drill.
In early warmups, Bol stands around a lot, holding a ball under his arm. Occasionally, he'll bounce it once and shoot it. He shoots all different ways, none of them seen recently in the NBA. He has a flatfooted hook shot. And a little left-handed push of a layup. He has a straight-on shot, about a 10-footer, released from above the head while standing flatfooted; the ball travels downward to the basket. He has an egg-in-the-Easter-basket shot in which, with two hands, he merely places the ball into the net without, of course, jumping. And he has a left-handed hook. He rarely makes any of these shots, except for the drop-in, which can't be missed. Fans buzz.
Could this be the same Bol who has produced, in 18 games, amazingly high and steady statistics? He's averaging 15.1 points, 15 rebounds and a phenomenal 12 blocks a game. He'd be rewriting the USBL record book, if one existed.
In Bol Warmup II, as game time nears, he does the same routine. Only this time he makes most of the shots.
This also causes a stir. What next?
All the time, Bol walks here, walks there. When the game begins, he also walks here and there. At a timeout, his teammates all will run to the bench, Bol will walk. When play resumes, everyone will hustle back to the court, Bol will stroll out last. During breathers, he'll lean back on his chair while everybody else leans forward. Look directly down the Gulls' bench and what you see are seven or eight heads and two knees. He has small kneecaps.
But Bol runs up and down the court more than people have said. He's not a court runner like Patrick Ewing by any stretch, but neither is he an immovable object. As he said before the game, "I can't run fast like a guard, but I can run like some big men."
Another thing he does well is throw the outlet pass. Sidearm, with amazing accuracy. The ball sails two-thirds of the court on a line, zipping past one opponent after another, and lands safely in a teammate's hands. That teammate usually is Spud Webb, who takes the ball and imitates a blur on his way to the basket. Two points.
Bol and Webb -- they should always be able to get a job on the Globetrotters -- also put on another crowd-pleaser. Bol blocks a shot -- "One time I heard him say, 'Get that outta here,' " says Orange -- and Webb comes along and scoops the ball up on the fly, never to be headed.
No question, Bol is a defensive force. Says Orange, who faced Bol twice earlier in Newport, "I've never had my shot blocked so often in my life, as long as I've been playing."
Bol also leads the league in rebounds and would get 13 against the Knights. But only one came off the offensive board. Rebounding is one area in which Bol needs work. Often, he trails the play and gets underneath too late to be a factor. On defense as well, he doesn't always get good rebounding position. He simply doesn't get off the ground, and he doesn't pull the ball down with any authority. But, skinny as he is, as raw a talent as he unquestionably is, Bol eventually might be an NBA-caliber rebounder if for no other reason than he's going on 7-7.
"I get up pretty good," says Orange, "but he's already up there."
Offensively, Bol could use a cram course. "We're working on fundamentals, how to cut, simple things," says Stacom, a former Boston Celtics guard who's only had time to offer a primer. "I'm sure Gene Shue has some ideas."
He scored only seven against the Knights, but took only six shots. Orange's philosophy seemed to work. "The first time I tried to challenge him, but I realized this was almost impossible. Now I just try to make him change his shot a little. I just try to bother him, more or less."
Scoring is not Bol's primary objective, anyway.
"He takes pride is what he does well," says Stacom. "After a game he wants to know how many rebounds or blocks he got."
Against the Knights, he played 41 minutes, and his six fourth-period blocks helped the Gulls hang on, 99-94, after they once led by 28.
Indeed, Bol's shots, taken flatfooted and awkward-looking as they are, may be repertoire enough if he can ever get the ball in more consistently. Who's going to block even a flatfooted hook by Bol?
"I think it would be nice if I got that shot down," he says. Nicely understated.
Further, he's "eating good" this summer, trying to gain weight. Recently, when he visited Washington, the Bullets took him to Dominique's for lunch; he tried to order Chinese. What melody is it that he hears? There would appear to be a limit to the weight Bol could sensibly gain.
"I've got to think there's a serious problem here because his legs are so long," says teammate Martin Clark. "When you put on weight, you're going to put on weight in the upper body. Can his legs take it? . . . How is it going to affect the rest of his body? And it will take two years. You can't all of a sudden put on 30 or 40 pounds."
It could be that Bol never will put on much weight. Says Knights Coach Frank Mulzoff, "I don't know whether his metabolism can take weight. Some kids are bound to be skinny their whole lives."
But Bol is eager. He also wants to start lifting weights. "I don't have a car," he says. "The place (to lift weights) is seven or 10 miles away. Somebody was going to give me a ride, but he didn't come."
You mean, he was asked, all you need is a ride? "It's too far to walk." But if you get a ride, you'll lift? "That's right."
So, can he play in the NBA next season?
"No," says Mulzoff. "But he is a competitor. He comes to play. Stamina is the big thing. We try to run him up and down the court. I think the pace in the NBA would be too much."
"He's not aggressive as most big guys are," says the Knights' beefy Ken Bannister, 6-9 and 236, who played last season with the Knicks. "He's tall, frail. Ruland, Mahorn, Moses . . . I don't think he'll last too long with them."
Does he even have the strength to play two nights in a row? Following the Knights game, the Gulls took on the New Jersey Jammers -- Tuesday night, it must be Wayne, N.J. -- and Bol looked sluggish as the Gulls lost, 112-106. He scored nine points and got 15 rebounds, but had four blocks -- low for him.
What, then, were the Bullets thinking of when they drafted him?
"A long-term project," says General Manager Bob Ferry. "I think he is further along basketballwise than he is physically. He has good instincts. He passes well. He has good hand-eye coordination. This isn't some publicity stunt, as some people would have you believe.
"We're sending a physical therapist up there Sunday to work with him -- dietary and weights. Mostly dietary."
Can Bol make the Bullets' roster next season?
"That's our hope," says Ferry. "We're making every plan for him to be on the team. I can see him being a factor. Unless we come to the decision that it would be in everybody's best interest if he played somewhere else, like he's playing now." That would be in Europe, or the Continental Basketball Association. "We'd have to decide if that would be better or whether it would be better to have him practice every day against our players."
It might come down to what the Knights' Bannister says:
"It all depends on what he has in his heart."